Citizens plant seeds for a green city

Walking through Chatham Square Park in Fair Haven one summer evening 11 years ago, David Zaker noticed several of his neighbors planting trees and shrubs around the park.

His neighbors were participating in the Community Greenspace program, which provides groups of residents and civic organizations with the materials and expertise to beautify their neighborhoods and create and maintain parks. The Chatham Square project is one of more than 50 that encourage community involvement every summer in and around New Haven.

Community Greenspace is run by the Urban Resources Initiative, a non-profit organization that promotes community-based programs supporting urban forestry and environmental education. In addition to Community Greenspace, URI runs a research program and a youth outreach program. While URI is independent of the University, its offices are in the School of Forestry and it has a Yale faculty adviser.

Colleen Murphy-Dunning, director of the URI, said the most important goal of Community Greenspace is to build and strengthen communities.

“It encourages people of all ages and races to take care of the environment together,” she said.

Murphy-Dunning also said the URI offers an internship opportunity for graduates and undergraduates.

“The bigger skill they are learning is to work at the grassroots level,” she said.

Tendro Ramaharitra FES ’05, who served as an intern in the program this summer and has long-term plans to run a non-profit organization, said Community Greesnpace provided him a unique learning opportunity.

“The program is very helpful for a student in understanding the framework in working on the community level,” he said.

The URI is the brainchild of foresty professor William Burch. In 1989 Burch and Ralph Jones, director of the Baltimore Park System, worked together to form the program, in which Yale students traveled to Baltimore to run education and stewardship programs in inner-city Baltimore parks. The mayor of Baltimore at the time, Kurt Schmoke ’71, was a member of the Yale Corporation.

The Baltimore URI was intended to be as much of a teaching tool as a community building organization, Burch said.

“It is an excellent part of professional training,” Burch said. “It really helps connect theory and thought with reality.”

After the success of the Baltimore URI, New Haven residents called for a duplicate program in the area. In 1991, the New Haven URI became an independent organization.

“It’s good for Yale to get things started and moving but then step out of the way and let the locals take it where they want to go with it,” Burch said. “You want people to be independent.”

Chris Ozyck, who oversees Community Greenspace, said in addition to building and beautifying communities, the program also yields a substantial environmental benefit.

In order for a community or organization to participate in the program, four members must apply together and present a proposal. Once accepted, the community and one of the interns, under Ozyck’s supervision, plan out a schedule. The planting takes place over 12 weeks during the summer.

During the winter, Ozyck, who has his own landscaping business, handles project evaluations and fundraising. Two-thirds of the funding for Community Greenspace generally comes from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. Other donors include various civic groups, individuals and the City of New Haven. During planting season, Ozyck said the program spends about $60,000 on plant materials.

While most of the projects occur over a single summer, neighborhoods like Fair Haven are so devoted to the cause that they have made stewardship through Community Greenspace an annual activity.

Every summer since he first saw his neighbors planting, Zaker and members of his community, who formed an organization called the Friends of Chatham Square, have worked to maintain Chatham Square Park and its surroundings with help from Community Greenspace by replacing dead and dying trees and shrubs around the park and planting perennials.

Before the planting season begins, Zaker and others go door-to-door handing out fliers announcing what projects will be done that year. As many of the residents of the neighborhood are Hispanic, the fliers are printed in both English and Spanish. As a result of the fliers, many residents, including children, show up to help.

“Kids have been our biggest help,” Zaker said. “It’s amazing how many of them want to dig a hole and plant a tree.”

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